Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers’ letters and diaries
I am currently reading a book of selected letters, First things first, by Australian poet Kate Llewellyn. I’m loving it, so I thought that as a precursor to my review (which is a way off yet as I’ve only read a third), I’d do a Monday Musings on the published letters and diaries of Australian writers. Hmm, not “the” so much as “some”, I should say. And, I should also say that I haven’t read many.
But, I do enjoy reading letters and diaries. It comes, I think, of being a reader who reads more for character than plot. I have written several posts on Jane Austen’s letters which my local group read in sections over a few years. (My posts are listed under Jane Austen on my Author Index page). They were published after Austen’s death. Reading Lewellyn’s letters, I’m aware that she’s alive, and that many of her recipients still are too. It’s a brave thing, I think, to let these “private” communications be shared. Nettie Palmer prepared the extracts from her journal for publication, and recognised the challenges of publishing something that was initially intended only for herself. She says:
Many of the people mentioned in these pages are no longer alive, and as I could not ask all for consent to use their words or letters, I have not asked any. If my friends should think I have taken liberty with them … well, I should be sorry. They will believe nothing here was set down in malice, much in love and gratitude.
Most of the books I’ve listed, though, were published after the author’s death.
As I researched today’s post, I came across the Australian Government’s website on Australian literature. They mention the published letters of Gwen Harwood, which I will include in my little select list below. They include this description of her letters:
Spirited and witty, warm, reflective, at times enraged, often overcome by laughter, the letters are so varied that this large volume can be read as one might read a novel or an autobiography. It would be a pity just to dip in at random: this is the story of the making of a poet.
I’m not sure all collections of letters or diaries provide the story of the making of the writer involved, but they must give some insight into the person, their personality, interests, likes, loves and frustrations. So, here is a selection of published letters and diaries by Australian writers, ordered alphabetically by the name of the writer.
- Franklin, Miles: The diaries of Miles Franklin, edited by Paul Brunton (2004). These diaries cover the period 1932 to 1954, and is enlightening about Australia’s literary life at the times. I’ve only dipped into it (oops) while doing other research, and look forward to reading more. Here, to give a taste, is an honest Franklin on Dame Mary Gilmore in 1947: “I called on Mary Gilmore. She is increasingly apocryphal in her assertions. Very against the British — an old snake really, seeing the way she touted for a British title …”
- Harwood, Gwen: A Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943-1995, edited by Gregory Kratzmann (2001). See the quote above!
- Llewellyn, Kate: First things first: Selected letters of Kate Llewellyn, 1977-2004, edited by Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill (2015). This is a lively, personal account of Llewellyn’s life, from what I’ve read so far. And it shows me the resilience you need to be a writer, given the very uncertain financial situation writers often find themselves in.
- Palmer, Nettie: Nettie Palmer: her private journal ‘Fourteen years’, poems, reviews and literary essays (1988), edited by Vivian Smith. This is, really, an anthology, of various of Nettie Palmer’s writings, but it starts with Fourteen years which comprises extracts from Palmer’s journal from 1925 to 1936 and which was first published in Meanjin in 1948. Palmer prepared it for publication, and Smith writes in the introduction that, in arranging it, “notions of symmetry and design were of more importance to Nettie Palmer than an exact pocket diary account of those days”. So, perhaps, a diary that isn’t quite a diary?
- Palmer, Vance and Nettie: Letters of Vance and Nettie Palmer 1915-1963, edited by Vivian Smith (1977). This is a selection of the “copious” letters the Palmers wrote to many people, including aspiring and established writers. The inside cover says that the “selection reveals the breadth of the Palmers’ interests and the generosity of their concern for young writers’ struggles, for the plight of Spain in the 1930s, for the problems of bringing up children, earning a living, and facing two world wars. The span of their letters provides an informed and lively perspective on this century. Through these day-to-day responses runs a constant theme: the need for Australians to assume a responsible national stance in politics, in public affairs and in the Palmers’ own profession, literature. They lament, in an entirely modern voice, the inconsecutive* nature of Australian culture, the derivative admirations of academics and the public, and the philistinism evident in so much of our national life”.
- Wright, Judith: With love and fury: Selected letters of Judith Wright, edited by Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney (2006). This collection includes her 1945-46 correspondence with Jack McKinney, who became her husband, and with Queensland poet, Jack Blight. Co-editor and coincidentally Wright’s daughter, Meredith McKinney, says that the letters with Blight “constitute a running commentary on the Australian literary scene as well as what she was reading and thinking about poetry and writing in general”. Wright was an activist for the environment and indigenous rights, among other social issues, so her letters are sure to be enlightening.
I’ll leave it here, but have you noticed something? With the exception of Vance Palmer, these all belong to women. It’s easy to suggest that letter writing and journal-keeping have traditionally been the realm of women, but there have been men too, like Samuel Pepys, of course. I did look for diaries and letters by men but with little success. I’m hoping they do exist and that some readers here will tell me about them. Regardless, I’d love to know if you, too, enjoy reading writers’ letters and journals.
* I have no idea what this word means and wonder if it’s a typo – I quoted it from the National Library’s Catalogue quoting the book’s inside cover.